The best place in the world to ski is in the backcountry, in the middle of nowhere, where you haven't ridden a chairlift, are out by yourself with no ski patrol to help, and there are no signs pointing where to go.
Last winter, I had it dialed in. I knew exactly what time to leave the parking lot. I knew how long it would take to skin up to the ridgeline. I could hit it perfectly to give myself the last 10 minutes of sunlight while sitting on that ridge.
Although they say you're not supposed to, I often ski by myself. One evening last winter, I was up on the ridgeline alone. It was the first clear night after a storm, and right as the sun nudged the horizon line, I skied. It was perfect snow. I felt like I was floating or flying--I'm not sure which--there's nothing like it when it's that good.
I effortlessly glided through an open tree glade on smooth snow that, in the evening light, glowed like an Orange Creamsicle. Everything around me--the snow, the sky and a few puffy clouds--reflected the sunset, casting fiery light all around.
Back in town, I joined some co-workers for a drink, including Ordean, an ornery old ski patroller and longtime local. I bragged about my ski run as I slid onto the barstool. A few times before, when telling Ordean I was going alone, I'd get a look of concern from him, his voice sounding disapproving as he said, "Be careful."
With a shot of whiskey in front of him, Ordean wasn't taking it easy on me.
"Were you by yourself?" he asked.
I could tell Ordean wouldn't be placated, so I decided to push it.
"No," I said. "My dog was with me."
"Did you dig a snow pit?"
I told him I did, and that there was a little wind loading, but I skied it anyway.
"Never trust a pit," Ordean growled at me.
At that point, I knew we weren't going to see eye to eye, and I understood where Ordean was coming from. When you're alone, everything is more consequential. That's why that night, I skied a low angle slope and stopped a couple of times to assess the terrain.
I'll admit that none of this totally compensates for what a partner can add when traveling in the backcountry. And don't get me wrong, I love skiing with people. The best days I've ever had were with my best friends. But when there's only an hour of daylight left, or it snowed overnight and everyone else is at work, you've got to go skiing and you have to go alone.
Now it's fall and I'm thinking ahead. We're all thinking ahead. We're all wondering how much it's actually going to snow this winter. I contacted the National Weather Service office in Boise to get a forecast for the upcoming winter. As of right now, we are in a neutral situation between El Nino and La Nina, which means normal temperatures and normal precipitation (in general, an El Nino forecast means it's warmer and drier in Idaho, whereas La Nina means colder and wetter).
The NWS folks stressed that in their years of forecasting, they have seen it go either way--either really dry or really wet . I was also shown a diagram from the Climate Prediction Center that predicts the drought situation willl persist for Boise and Bogus Basin through January 2014. The same diagram indicates that the Central Idaho mountains may be removed from the drought designation by then. While this is all complicated stuff, the NWS stressed the one true variable: A lot will depend on how the weather pattern sets up over the winter.
The other thing on my mind is this summer's fires and how this might affect skiing. Ketchum had a huge scare, while there were countless smoky days in Boise and McCall. Marty Rood of Payette Powder Guides said that when it comes to skiing, he's "a fan of forest fires." In the early '90s, a fire opened up a lot of terrain on Lick Creek Summit, where PPG operates a rental yurt.
Here in Idaho, many of our forests grow densely. I remember skiing east of Ketchum in the Pioneer Mountains last February, and we could barely link more than four turns because of how close the trees were. Fires sweep through a hillside, open things up, and make it more skiable when the snow flies. So in that sense, if you can find skiing in a freshly burned area, you're psyched.
All this being said, I'm anticipating that it will snow at some point, and that I will find a perfect spot to ski. Maybe it will be in dense subalpine firs or on a freshly burned lodgepole pine slope. I'm sure I'll find myself there as the sun fades, where it's just far enough out that I feel like I've left everything behind.
I'll end up on a high point, among the white barks where I can see endless ridgelines and the sky will be endlessly deepening blue while the sun sets. I'll feel the rip of my skins from the bottom of my skis. Then as my skis begin their glide over snow that's untouched, maybe just fluffed by the breeze, I'll think of Ordean.
Maybe one time I'll invite Ordean and he'll go out with me, and this time, he'll understand it all. At which point, it will be my turn to buy him a shot of whiskey.